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This is going to be filled with, oh, just a few tangents, and got hella lot longer than I intended (what a shock). And it's all about running a comedy club. If you're not interested in knowing how a comedy club works, delete this. It's technical, not funny.
Well, there may be one or two funny moments. When I worked at the Holy City Zoo comedy club when Cantu was running it, he had a very strict rule: no heckling allowed (which I've mentioned before). He just had too much respect for the time it takes to prepare an act to allow some imbecile to interrupt a comic's timing when the comic has been going over and over it for days in advance of the show, to get the rhythm down perfectly.
He also went to extreme measures to try to stop the comics from going into the audience to make fun of people (as Don Rickles does. He'd say, "Just get up and do your act... don't mess with the audience, because they're the ones buying the drinks which keeps this place open so you can work here!"
There were so many times when people would walk into the Zoo and say, "Don't sit in the front row, because the comics will make fun of you!" Which shows you about how brainless comedians are. And I tried to explain it to them, but they wouldn't listen - they're comedians. They don't listen. They perform. I tried to explain, "Why alienate your audience, you idiot? People come into a comedy club wanting to laugh, not to be afraid!"
And once a comedian started messing with the crowd, the hecklers came out. And I didn't like dealing with hecklers. Plus, it was disruptive to the show, and I didn't need a disruptive show messing up my tight schedule.
One time I had to walk a heckler out because he just wouldn't shut up. He got started when a comic started making fun of him. And then the heckler hassled every comic after the original idiot who instigated the whole thing. The heckler was screaming at me, "No, no, you don't understand! I'm part of the act!"
I told him, "Let me give you a clue about comedy teams. They don't get started through heckling. Laurel and Hardy... Laurel did not heckle Hardy. They met via talent. Which you... don't have."
There was a popular comedian, who was written up in the Chronicle as being "a brilliant improvisational comic who really knows how to go into a crowd and work it." One night there were two men and two women sitting right up front, and they were helping us meet our budget by how much they were drinking. And the comedians kept messing with them, and I kept pleading with them not to, because it got one woman yelling things out, and I really didn't consider it her fault as the comics were in her face.
Again, it was my job to read the audience. So I was about to put this popular comedian up and said, "Listen... just leave them alone. She's drunk. If you don't talk to her, she'll keep quiet." He said, "Okay," and, being a comedian, got on stage and immediately started making fun of them. The woman kept yelling out unintelligent stuff because at that point she was pretty much stupefied and it was really messing up his act (and therefore, my show).
He could barely get a line out. So he said to her... well, I can't tell you what he said to her, because while I happen to swear like a sailor, and often swear in these emails, I don't like vulgarity (there's a difference, although I'm sure at times I cross the line).
One of the guys jumped up and said "You say that to my sister?" and yelled what was a pretty impressive string of obscenities; I would have been proud to craft that sentence together; the rhythm of it was spectacular.
This popular comedian really knew how to go into a crowd and work it, said, "Good night!" and ran out of the club. I had to jump up on stage because you couldn't leave an empty stage - Cantu insisted on that. He was up in the office and ran down the stairs screaming, "Whoever said that - get the hell out of this club!"
The guy turned and was ready to throw his (heavy glass) beer mug at Cantu, and I had to jump off stage and say, "C'mon, sorry, guy, for what he said to your sister, but just calm down! But I think maybe it's best you all leave." Which they did. And then a few minutes later, he backed his pickup truck over the sidewalk right into the door of Zoo, put it into idle and floored it to flood the club with exhaust fumes. Then roared off, leaving skid marks on the sidewalk.
This really helped my comedy show run smoothly. It really helps to have a freaked out crowd and you say, "Okay, folks, so now let's laugh, now that the bar room brawl didn't happen and the pickup in front of the door has left impressively!"
So much for this popular comedian who really knew how to work a crowd. But he was a pretty fast runner. I have to commend him for that. And intelligent. He left it for me and Cantu to deal with. When I was in forced exile in San Diego, my ex-wife and I went to the Comedy Store there.
The emcee was Argus Hamilton. He got up on stage to open the show and immediately asked someone in the audience, "So, where are you from?" I thought, "Oh, christ, here we go again." That was a stock comedian line to make fun of wherever the person was from, things we kept preaching at the Zoo, "Don't do that." The woman said, "Kansas City." He said, "Oh, you know, I performed at the [comedy club] there and had a really nice time." Then he turned to someone else and asked, "Where are you from? Oh, I performed there. Beautiful city." And he repeated this a couple more times. Never once made fun of them.
He did it just to establish contact with the audience and get them into the show. Not once did he crack a joke (well, he may have, but it was not at the expense of anybody in the audience). It was the most impressive bit of emceeing I've ever seen, and I'm not a bad emcee - but I couldn't have done that. The comedians that followed killed. Argus had relaxed and warmed up the house beautifully.
Robin Williams would stop by whenever he was in town, because the Holy City Zoo was the comedy club where he got his start. I had seen him several times, but that was just when I was an open mike comic and not running the show. But the first time I ever introduced was when I was beginning to learn the ropes of being an emcee.
Cantu made me the house emcee, not because I was funny (I wasn't) but because he figured I'd have the intelligence to keep the show moving. That was another unique thing about how Cantu ran the Zoo. He didn't need his emcees for open mikes to be funny. He wanted them to simply introduce the comics as quickly as possible. Yes, if a comic bombed, you might try a joke or two to try to get the audience laughing again for the benefit of the next comic.
But there's nothing worse than an emcee at an open mike who in essence feels, "Hey, this is my chance to try out new material." And then does five minutes between each comic. (I used to watch Barry Sobel [he was the guy they consulted when they made the Tom Hanks movie "Punchline"] emcee the open mikes at the Other Cafe and commented, "This isn't an open mike, it's "The Barry Sobel Show" with a supporting cast of 20 he would have preferred weren't there.)
That type of emcee tries out new material to the point where the audience is getting bored, and thinks, "Well, I'm bombing now, I'll bring on the next comic." In other words, "I've brought the energy level down, destroyed whatever rhythm had developed, and made it much more difficult for the next comic to have a good set. Now... what other material do I have to try out after this one gets off stage?"
I warned about tangents, and I'll get back to Robin in a minute, but I was just telling Nicolina, "You just had to BE around comics when you were performing. That's why you don't hate them like Cantu and I do. We had to DEAL with them. Thirty to forty of them every night."
I was going to tell the stories about Jim Edwards, Perry Kurtz, another Barry Sobel story, and one about another comic whose name escapes me, but this is getting too long, so maybe some other time. So when I was a new emcee and unsure of myself, Cantu ran up to me and said, "Robin just came in. Introduce him!" I got up on stage, just trying to keep it succinct, and said, "You're in for a very, very special treat. Please welcome..." and Cantu ran over to the stage and said, "He stepped outside for a moment. Stall!"
I wasn't that funny to begin with, and couldn't improvise to save my soul; it's just not my style. Plus, my adrenaline rush about introducing Robin discombobulated me (hey, I know it's shallow to get an adrenaline rush about meeting a famous person, but I was only 24, and there's no sin being shallow when you're only 24 - hell, people really don't start thinking until they're around 33, and even then, they do it badly. I'm 44 and still practicing.)
So I started stuttering, "Um, um, I, I um, nobody leave, um, j-just wait for a bit..." and Cantu ran over and said, "Okay, he's back, introduce him!" I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Robin Williams!" I had screwed up. You don't stand on stage and be clueless and wordless for the first significant intro you're going to do.
I was sitting in the office, trying to hide, and Robin came in looking for me. He said, "I want to thank you for that nice introduction you gave me." He wasn't being sarcastic. He knew I screwed up, and I knew I screwed up, and I knew that he knew... but he just wanted to reassure me, "Hey, it ain't the end of the world. Just move on." But I always have appreciated that gesture he made that he didn't need to do. He remembered what it was to be a beginning comic.
"not funny" Cantu note: Read on to discover some fascinating, never before told anecdotes about comedians and comedy club life.
"Don Rickles" Cantu note: Don Rickles - a comedian known for challenging, interacting, and insulting audience members. And note Rickles has built his reputation on harassing/heckling audience members, so if one goes to Rickles' show, one knows that one is open to the possibility of being made fun of - thus his audience members attend willingly. But in general, most comedy club attendees are not prepared to be the topic of discussion.
"afraid!" Cantu note: For any comedian reading this and wondering what happen to the comedy club boom of the 80's - - - DUH?!
"Laurel and Hardy" Cantu Note: In the US, a beloved comedy team whose heyday was in the 1930's and 1940's. Both partners, are now dead, but, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, thru their movies, still have a following of hundreds of thousands of fans in America. Many are members of a fan club called 'Sons of Desert' named after one of their classic movies.
"skid marks on the sidewalk" Cantu note: The driver also side-swiped the side-door of the car of another comedian, Jeremy Kramer - a comedian who other comics loved, but who never quite caught on with the general public the way he did with comics.
"San Diego" Cantu note: A city located at the southern most part of California. It is probably ten hours from San Francisco by car and maybe two hours south of Los Angeles and it borders Mexico.
"Argus Hamilton" Cantu note: Somewhat surprising that Hamilton would be the MC, since usually MC's are beginners or less experienced comic, but Argus is a solid pro.
"introduce" : A series of articles on how to give/get good introductions are is available in "Cantu's Comedy Wit and Humor Wisdom". You can purchase the entire collection of CantuHumor article's featuring these as well as other Stage & Platform Skills and Humor Writing Techniques here.) Soon to be republished.
"Other Cafe" Cantu Note: A comedy club at Carl & Cole in the Haight/Ashbury district of San Francisco.